You don't have to travel any farther than the nearest supermarket or bar to quench your thirst with a Bud or Miller Lite. But how many neighborhood stores carry a wide selection of craft beers such as Dubbel Trubbel from New Jersey or Black Gold Imperial Stout from Oregon? Makers of these beers brew in relatively small batches and sell their products close to home. A great way to experience the full range of these rich-tasting, ingenious brews is to head out to one of the scores of beer festivals in coming months.
You're sure to find one that meets your preferences, whether you're a beer geek searching for that perfect saison (a Belgian country-style ale) or just a casual imbiber looking to trade up from Keystone for a weekend. Some are laid-back, outdoor events with great food and special activities for the kids, while others pull in home brewers looking to pick up some pointers. At most festivals, the brewmasters are perched right by the taps, happy to discuss their creations, and the cadre of volunteer pourers is seeded with passionate aficionados.
At many events, half the fun occurs outside the festival grounds. Local pubs pull out all the stops to impress their visitors, pouring unusual kinds of brews, hosting chats with visiting brewers, or pitting one beer against another in raucous competitions. Fine restaurants gin up beer-and-food tastings. And nearby breweries open their doors for special tours or parties.
The top events to consider? The Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF), which this year runs from July 28-31 in downtown Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The fest hosts the best of the state's 70-plus breweries and quite a few others, serving brews ranging from the venerable Pyramid Hefeweizen, which introduced many Americans to wheat beers, to Siletz Chocolate Porter and Laurelwood Organic Deranger imperial red ale. The family-friendly OBF features live entertainment and free craft-brewed root beer and other specialty sodas for minors and designated drivers. Entry to the festival is free; to drink, you pay $4 for a souvenir mug and $1 per one-serving token (four buy a full mug).
If you can't make it to Oregon, try the Vermont Brewers Festival, running July 15-16 in Burlington's Waterfront Park. The fest erects a tent village on the banks of Lake Champlain to accommodate three sessions of live music, local cuisine, and beers from 30 breweries, located from New Hampshire south to Delaware. Tickets run $20 per session, including 10 tasting tickets and a souvenir tasting glass.
URBAN SIPPERS AND YAHOOS
Then there's the big kahuna, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. This boisterous, democratic affair, now in its 24th year, lures a range of participants -- from urban sippers to high-spirited yahoos. The 1,400 brews on offer can sate any of those tastes, as they range from mass-produced lagers such as Budweiser to geek favorites like New Belgium's 1554 Brussels Style Black Ale and Dogfish Head's 90-Minute IPA. "It's like having a bunch of neighborhoods in a big room," says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a GABF habitué who first came into the public eye when his brew pub became a magnet for downtown revival in the late 1980s. "Some neighborhoods are more intellectual and reflective. Others are very boisterous and loud." Session tickets, at $35 to $50, are good for unlimited one-ounce samples.
If you prefer something on a smaller scale, there is no shortage of events to choose from, ranging from the Santa Barbara Beer Fest & Motor Classic in California on July 23 to the Emerald Coast Beer Fest Scout in Pensacola, Fla., on Sept. 10. You can find them by picking up a free "brewspaper" such as Celebrator Beer News or Yankee Brew News at your local better-beer bar or checking the Brewers Assn. listing at beertown.org/craftbrewing/events.asp. Then join forces with your fellow revelers in hoisting a glass to what has become a golden age of American brewing.
By Gerry Khermouch